It’s funny that in my review of last week’s penultimate episode I compared the theorizing surrounding True Detective to what occurred with Lost because they ultimately share one vital thing in common: the show is about the characters, not the mystery. Don’t get me wrong; all of the hoopla and hubbub and discussion regarding The Yellow King and Carcosa has been fascinating and fun, and it made True Detective exist not only as a TV show that we have watched each week but something that we have collectively engaged with on an intellectual level. The theorizing and research that I so fondly described last week speaks to our need to understand and become part of the experience, and to me that just goes to show how rich the episodes Nic Pizzolatto wrote ultimately were. The complex time shifting narrative, the use of storytelling and unreliable narrators, and the dense amount of clues found within these 8 episodes is nothing to scoff at, and the fact that the resolution to the mystery, as it were, was relatively straightforward should not be seen as a knock on the series, although I fully expect some people to feel that way.
In the end, there’s only Marty and Rust. Last week’s “After You’ve Gone” already gave us all of the answers. A large conspiracy did exist between the Childress and Tuttle families. Young girls and women were taken and placed into horrific rituals. The Wellspring schools and the Parish were involved, as Rust always suspected, and over the years the evil of this large network persisted. When your evil force isn’t one man but many it can be difficult to get rid of all of them, but we know that Marty and Rust gave it their best shot. As it turns out the barbie tableau that Marty’s daughter made – that I couldn’t get my mind off of – was merely a device to show the effects being a detective might have on one’s children. Maggie’s father was only what he seemed to be. I became a bit too preoccupied with the details, and lost track of the larger picture. That’s okay. The picture wasn’t always perfect. Season 1 of True Detective is a stellar bit of television, excelling as a character piece and an example of the high quality of filmmaking the form can exhibit (thank you, Cary Fukunaga, for your incredible work), but it was also plagued by issues of gender, of unnecessary tangents, and of a plethora of philosophical and existential details that were ultimately relevant after all but frequently overwhelming in the smaller picture. The show often did a disservice to its supporting cast, using them merely as pawns to serve the exploration of Marty and Rust. But no matter. In the end it all came down to Marty and Rust, and in that regard it is a major home run.
Who is The Yellow King? What is Carcosa? I’m not so sure it matters. I do not think The Yellow King was ultimately one person but rather a metaphor for the evil the Childresses and Tuttles of this world subscribe to. These awful men ritualized their deeds and created horrific tableaus, playing into mythology and Mardi Gras and Robert Chambers and Lovecraft, to ultimately hide the darkness that lies within the heart of man. That it all ultimately boiled down to Errol Childress, the spaghetti monster, just means that he was the last evil force still standing. After all, Rust and Marty took down Reggie LeDoux and his brother many years ago. Rust and Marty used good old fashioned detective work to figure out the location of Errol Childress, and the final showdown that occurs in the backwoods of Louisiana was deeply unsettling and highly intense. Throughout the episode we saw glimpses of the particular brand of crazy of Errol Childress, and seeing him “take care” of his dead father tied to a bed frame, his mouth sewn shut, or Errol’s shifting accents, or the mere fact that he still to this day works for the Parrish, painting the walls of a school as children play right next to him was chilling. Then Rust follows Errol into the depths of Carcosa – a maze of horrors, stick sculptures, and dank corridors – and his voice booms and it all ends in a show of violence that had me reeling. In the room that the final confrontation occurs in there are two interesting things of note: first, a figure formed of sticks and skulls with yellow draped across it, and second an oculus window at the top of the room allowing the bright yellow sun to beam down. In his most desperate moment Rust has one of his trauma visions and he sees a vast universe of stars in the Oculus, right as Errol approaches from behind to stab him. At this moment I wondered if the show was about to veer off into the truly supernatural direction that some had speculated, but instead it was Rust’s mind’s way of preparing him for what was about to come.
The episode then has a rather long epilogue, and it is the tenor and content of these scenes that made me love the episode so much and finally brought home what True Detective was trying to accomplish. It must be known first that Rust and Marty send copies of the videotape and case files to a multitude of media outlets, and a large scandal breaks out across Louisiana. Finally the conspiracy is well known, even if Senator Tuttle uses his power to strike down the notion that the Tuttle family had anything to do with it. It must be known second that Marty and Rust both find themselves in the hospital, great friends and partners once again, recovering from their epic fight with Errol. Martin Hart may very well be a different man than he once was. His ex-wife and daughters come to visit him in the hospital, and although he says “I’m fine” over and over again he breaks down in to tears. He realizes once and for all that he’s not fine, and that he has been tricking himself all of these years. It is a touching scene that Woody Harrelson sells beautifully. The real capper comes through Rustin Cohle, though, and in the show’s final scene – a conversation between these two detectives in the parking lot of the hospital – everything we thought we knew, or at least everything we thought we understood about True Detective breaks apart.
This was an incredibly dark show, one filled with great nihilism and atheism, that presented itself as a slow descent into despair and the evils of men. I spent much time in my earlier reviews discussing the fact that ultimately neither Rustin nor Martin were good men, that their actions spoke to the badness, that there’s nothing good in this world. Yet compared to Errol, Rustin and Martin were saints. If we all have some evil within, our choices ultimately dictate the path we taken. Nic Pizzolatto said time and time again in interviews that the finale wouldn’t have a twist and that he wouldn’t take the easy storytelling path. I said last week that the show would ultimately take us down the road best served by the story. After all, this was a show about the stories that men tell each other and the way those stories affect our choices. In the end, though, perhaps there was a twist. Rustin Cohle, the most nihilistic and atheistic man there is, sees the light. When Rustin was stabbed by Errol and on the brink of death he had one of those out-of-body experiences and for the first time he felt something; a warmth, a higher power. He felt the touch of his long departed daughter. In the final line of the season Rust says to Marty, “Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”
Through 17 years of storytelling over 8 episodes we took a journey into the depths of despair of Louisiana, beautifully and chillingly directed by Cary Fukunaga. We saw the development and many layers of two fascinating men and their partnership and friendship and the brilliant performances of the fine actors playing them. We saw a mystery through to conclusion as well, but it was ultimately just a background with which to tell the story of these men. And we constantly saw darkness and more darkness. What a surprise then, what an almost overwhelmingly touching and emotional surprise, that Rustin Cohle, king of despair, his long hair let loose, his hospital gown lightly draped over his recovering body, tells us that it is okay to see the light. Maybe time isn’t a flat circle after all.